an excerpt from my new travel memoir, Bright
Sun, Strong Tea. (The
previous episode is Rockefeller
While researching the second edition
of my Lonely Planet guide in 1986,
I made my third visit to Harran,
the ancient town in southeastern
Turkey mentioned in the Bible's Book
of Genesis. (The Patriarch
Abraham stopped here for a
few years on his journey to the Promised
I saw three girls in colorful
traditional dress glancing at me, the
unusual foreigner taking photographs
of their strikingly photogenic beehive
I looked their way, smiled, said Merhaba! and
asked if I could take their picture.
"Evet!" (yes) they answered,
and they lit up with smiles as
though I had just offered them a one-month
all-expense-paid luxury trip to Paris,
wherever that might be. I squeezed
off a few frames.
The oldest girl, probably in
her late teens, looked very Turkish
or Kurdish with her jet black hair,
prominent black eyebrows and high cheekbones.
She was wearing a bright orange dress
with multicolored floral patterns over
blue-and-white polka dot shalvar (Turkish
bloomers). She had on a plain white
headscarf, a sleeved overwrap with
shiny rick-rack trim, and an army-type
canvas belt with one of those brass
buckles where you slide the little
rod sideways to cinch it. (I had a
belt like that when I was a Cub Scout.)
She had her left arm through the handle
of a big woven split-reed basket.
The second girl had on a long
blue dress, white headscarf, sleeved
overwrap, a thick men's leather belt
riding low on her hips, and a large
blue plastic basin in her left hand.
Her hair was lighter, her features
more Caucasian, and her smile even
more brilliant than her friend's.
The third girl, in a green
dress with a pinky-red headscarf, was
much younger, with blonde-tipped curls
and a tiny infant in her arms. Even
the infant was colorfully dressed in
blue-and-yellow baby top and head covering.
They all had perfect teeth.
All together they were a concerto
of colors and smiles too good to pass
up. Their considerable delight at being
photographed, at having this extraordinary
little moment of unexpected and exotic
pleasure interpellated into an otherwise
routine, familiar day, came through
in their simply brilliant smiles. The
photo even caught the gleam in the
second girl's eyes.
Catching that moment and their pure
innocent joy and pleasure is
what photography is all about. I
loved them and I still love that
I submitted the photo along with hundreds
of others when I sent in my manuscript
in mid-1987, and the photo editor chose
it for the book's front cover. I thought
it an excellent choice: eye-catching,
colorful, exotic, it offered the
allure of mystery and the ease of friendly
welcome all at once.
When the book appeared early in 1988, the
cover photo caused a furor.
Cut to the Turkish Embassy in Washington,
DC. Today the embassy is in a
modern building on a major avenue,
but in 1988 it was in a sumptuous
Embassy Row mansion finished in 1914
for Edward H. Everett of Cleveland,
promoter of the crimped metal bottlecap
with cork insert and owner of a
fortune derived therefrom. Everett
must have been fascinated by "oriental" (that
is, Middle Eastern) culture because
several rooms are decorated alla
Turca, which makes the mansion
a happily appropriate choice for
a Turkish diplomatic mission, which
it became in 1932 a few years after
Pass through the metal detector, show
your photo ID, get frisked by the security
guards, approach the grand staircase
but instead of climbing it turn to
the right and knock on the big, dark
solid wood door before you. An electronic
latch buzzes and you enter the huge
wood-panelled chamber decorated in
classical style which was, in 1988,
the office of His Excellency Dr Sükrü Elekdag,
Ambassador of the Turkish Republic
to the United States of America.
As you enter, Dr Elekdag, a tall,
handsome man with jet black hair and
craggy features, rises from his desk
and, when he has confirmed visually
the identity of his visitor, comes
out from behind it to greet you. I
feel pretty sure that there is a loaded
pistol ready to hand in the desk,
and that the desk itself may be bullet-
and bomb-proof, which is why Dr Elekdag
stays near it until he knows for sure
who you are. (He has already been alerted
by Security about your visit, which
is by appointment in any case.)
On the landing halfway up the grand
staircase is a memorial plaque to
several dozen Turkish diplomats, their
spouses, children, staff and clueless
bystanders assassinated by Armenian
terrorists during the 1970s and '80s.
Dr Elekdag is merely taking prudent
precautions for someone in his position
at this time.
For a number of years during the 1980s
I worked as a consultant in public
relations for Dr Elekdag. On most visits
to his office, we discussed ways to
educate Americans about the Turkish
Republic, its history, culture and
people, like informing them that the
sultan was long gone and Turks weren't
Arabs. Most Americans hadn't had a
data refresh in nearly a century.
This visit, however, was different.
Dr Elekdag wanted to discuss the cover
photo on my recently published Lonely
Planet guide. He was, as always, reserved,
polite and formal, but obviously displeased
with the choice. Probably 'furious'
would be a more accurate way to phrase
it, but he was far too well-mannered,
gentlemanly and, well, diplomatic to
expose me to unvarnished wrath.
"These village girls do not project
an accurate picture of our country," is
all he said.
He was not the only one to think this
way. Bookshop owners in Istanbul
were refusing to stock or sell the
book because of what they called "those gypsies" on
the cover. My Turkish friends were
all, 100%, upset at the choice. Turkey
had struggled so mightily over more
than half a century to modernize, secularize
and democratize. It was on its way
to becoming the economic powerhouse
of the eastern Mediterranean, and now
the best-selling guidebook to the country
comes out bearing a photo of country
bumpkins. The picture, they thought,
sent exactly the wrong message: Turkey
is poor and backward.
I understood why they disapproved,
but suggested they look at it as a
tourist might: unfamiliar with Turkey,
the prospective visitor would see color,
tradition, innocence, happiness, and
a transparently heartfelt welcome.
The photo was perfectly suited for
its task of enticing people to buy
the book and to visit Turkey. Besides,
visitors would see the 'real' Turkey
once they arrived, and would realize
that the Harran girls were only one
small aspect of it.
That's how Lonely Planet and I learned
why most guidebook covers are relatively
boring photos of famous and easily
identifiable buildings: these types
of photos can't blow up on you.
For later editions I and other LP
authors were shown the cover photo
choice and asked to comment on it.
For the cover of the fourth edition,
the photo editors had chosen a close-up
of a section of colorful Turkish carpet.
I thought it an excellent choice, and
told them so.
"Can it blow up on us in any way?" they
asked. "Could this carpet design be
some traditional pattern, say a Kurdish
or Armenian or Iranian or Chechen one,
which could somehow have political
overtones? Do the motifs have secret
No, it was fine. Everyone thought
it was great. It delighted a lot of
travelers and sold a lot of books.
Even so, the photo
of the girls in Harran is still
one of my fondest visions of the
friendliness one encounters so easily
and so often in Turkey.
here to order an autographed
copy of the book online with
credit card or PayPal.
from Turkey: Bright Sun, Strong
Tea copyright © 2004 by
Tom Brosnahan. All rights reserved.)
In A Name?)